I work for an organization that works to end racial profiling by law enforcement. Racial profiling, the practice of singling out people for stops, searches and investigations based on skin color and physical characteristics is, indeed, a major problem and a national disgrace. (If you agree with me then sign the petition calling on Obama to support the End Racial Profiling Act, which is about to be introduced in Congress.)
Racial profiling is however, just one aspect of a much larger problem of institutionalized discrimination throughout the criminal justice system.
At every stage of the criminal justice system, African-Americans and other people of color are treated more harshly. Studies have shown repeatedly that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be stopped by police than white Americans. And if stopped, African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be charged, more likely to be prosecuted and convicted and more likely to face harsher sentences than their white counterparts.
Consider these disparities from a Washington Post piece by Marc Mauer and David Cole: Whites and African Americans use and sell drugs at about the same rates, Black men in 2003 were almost 12 times as likely to go to prison as White men. Although Black people are 12 percent of the population and 14 percent of drug users, according to Mauer and Cole, they comprise 34 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 45 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons for such offenses.
Much of the increase in incarceration happened through the nation's "War on Drugs," which has led to the targeting of African Americans, particularly in African American neighborhoods. In the past 30 years, the prison population quintupled to over 2.3 million, according to Mauer.
This mass incarceration, which harms families and communities, and the racial disparities, underscore the fact that major reforms are needed to change the way police operate in communities of color, and how people of color are treated by prosecutors, judges and juries.
One overlooked fact is that many African American and Latino defendants are poorer than white defendants and cannot afford attorneys that have the resources to properly defend them against better-resourced prosecutors.
A historic example of this became evident late last month, when Georgia executed Troy Davis in connection with the killing of a police officer in 1989.
The fact that there was no physical evidence linking Davis to the killing and that seven of the nine witnesses who helped convict him recanted their testimony did not prevent the state from taking his life -- despite hundreds of thousands of petitions and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of the witnesses that led to Davis' conviction, Dorothy Ferrell, told a Savannah jury in 1991 that she was "real sure, positive sure" that Davis killed the officer adding that she did see him. But in an affidavit nine years later, she said she didn't see the shooting and told police what they wanted to hear.
However you feel about the death penalty, I'm sure that you don't believe that innocent people should be executed. Some 138 innocent people have been freed after being sentenced to death since the min-1970s, the Associated Press reported last month. And of those 138 freed, 32 had been convicted, completely or partly, based on faulty eyewitness testimony.
According to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, "erroneous eyewitness testimony whether offered in good faith or perjured -- is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S. criminal justice system."
Unfortunately, any attempts at fairness get cast aside where race is involved. An analysis of the death penalty in Philadelphia found that black people were 3.9 times more likely to be sentenced to death than whites. The Death Penalty Information Center says studies show this pattern of bias with the use of the death penalty repeated all over the country. Often racially biased remarks about the defendants from police and prosecutors including racial epithets are revealed and defendants are still convicted.
I'm not sure how a nation that prides itself on its democracy and fairness in what is so often referred to as the greatest country on earth could allow such flaws to persist.
The use of the death penalty in America is truly unconscionable and shameful. The vast majority of the world, 139 countries, do not have a death penalty.
Troy Davis was wrongfully executed. But I hope he didn't die needlessly. I hope that his case, which captured the attention of the world, will lead those who signed petitions and marched and denounced his execution to fight on in his name until the United States abolishes the death penalty.
Davis must not only be remembered for exposing the injustice that led to his killing but contributing to the struggle for racial justice and fighting for a better, fairer nation.
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